Is It Possible to be a Grain-Free Vegan?
OK, let’s start with a little disclaimer. This article can often stir up some debate. The information below is for informational purposes and is not meant to advocate or admonish any particular lifestyle choice. As always, consult your doctor or licensed nutritionist before engaging in any new dietary lifestyle choice to assure you are receiving all of your necessary nutritional requirements.
If you visit any nutrition message board you will likely find a debate about whole grains. Some will say that whole grains are an essential component of a well-balanced diet; while others will say that they are detrimental to your health, will make you fat, and can send you to an early grave.
It is possible to be a grain-free vegan. However, eliminating grains entirely can be a difficult undertaking. Unless you are diagnosed with issues like celiac disease or gluten insensitivity, eliminating grains may be more challenging than it’s worth.
The truth is you don’t NEED any particular type of food. As long as you get the necessary macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and a good balance of the essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), you can find a suitable workaround using other foods, or by incorporating thoughtful supplementation.
Although, more often than not, the benefits of consuming grains – nature’s food – far outweigh any potential consequences. Not only are grains full of healthful benefits for the majority of people, they are also healthy for the environment.
If you are here just for the recommendations on how to eliminate grains from your diet, scroll on down to the bottom of the page because we will first cover the pros and cons. Spoiler alert: There are more pros than cons.
The Great Grain Debate
If you look at the Paleo lifestyle, Atkins, and Whole30 diet, you’ll find that many of these diets will advocate eliminating whole grains.
The Paleolithic diet advocates will say that modern wheat is making people fat and sick, specifically the modern iteration of processed milled wheat. When a whole grain goes through the milling process, it is stripped of all of the essential vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, and fiber that are found in the bran and germ.
On the other hand, vegans, vegetarians, and macrobiotic dieters will often swear by the benefits of consuming an abundance of whole grains into their lifestyle.
Truth be known, grains have been consumed in some form for millions of years. So, believe it or not, the real Palio’s actually ate grains. Should we keep this a secret?
Why Grains Get a Bad Rap
If you were to analyze the North American diet you would find that the overall consumption of grains is off the chart. However, not all grains are created equal.
Let’s talk about processing.
The truth is – all grains are “processed.” To what extent is the question. Whole grains go through a process that removes the hull (the indigestible outer portion of the grain). This process leaves the nutrient-dense germ and endosperm intact.
Refined grains go through a process that removes the bran, germ, and endosperm – the nutrient-rich portion of the grain.
Now, just because a grain has been refined doesn’t ALWAYS mean it is devoid of nutrition. Some foods like bread, breakfast cereals, and pasta have been enriched with nutrients, which add back some of the good stuff that was removed.
The majority of grain consumption in the United States comes in the way of processed foods, such as pasta, bread, cereals, crackers, and baked goods.
When consuming processed foods, the grain is stripped of its fiber, and will subsequently lose most of the nutritional value that makes them so essential to the diet.
Are Whole Grains Bad For Us?
Grains contain chemicals that can cause a range of reactions for a very small percentage of the population. In fact, less than 4% of the population has significant allergies/intolerances to whole-grains. Most of these reactions are caused by grains containing gluten.
Conditions such as Crohn’s disease, colitis, and celiac disease can experience intestinal damage when consuming gluten. Celiac disease, a severe autoimmune disease resulting from an intolerance to gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale), is on the rise. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, approximately 1 in 100 people are affected by this disease. It is also estimated that approximately 2.5 million Americans go undiagnosed every year.
Autoimmune diseases are conditions where the body’s immune system is unable to tell the difference between cells that protect and belong to us versus cells that are foreign invaders.
On the other hand, we have gluten insensitivity/intolerance and wheat insensitivity, which are not autoimmune in nature. These conditions can also result in an undesirable reaction to gluten. These conditions have become more and more prevalent since 2013 and impact slightly greater than 1% of the population.
Also, some people have sensitivities to other non-gluten containing grains such as oats, corn, millet, rice, and sorghum. A qualified nutritionist or physician can help identify food allergies by performing tests or eliminating certain foods from your diet in a systematic way by using a process of elimination.
You may be familiar with the book The Plant Paradox by Dr. Steven Gundry. In this book, it is proposed that lectins, the plant-based protein found in grains and other plant foods, are causing a host of issues like weight gain, inflammation, and other serious health conditions.
This book goes on to say that people should kill their vegetables, eat seasonal fruits at the peak of their ripeness, and replace brown rice for white rice.
On the other side of this argument, we have The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. This book details his research on the Blue Zone regions around the world and how their lifestyle, diet, and stress-coping mechanisms increase their lifespan.
His research found that lectin-rich beans, whole-grains, and vegetables are the cornerstones of all longevity diets.
A BMJ meta-analysis found that the consumption of whole grains is associated with a “reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, total cancer, and mortality from all causes, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, diabetes, and all non-cardiovascular, non-cancer causes.”
Most healthcare professionals will not recommend a grain/gluten-free diet unless medically necessary. This is due to the tremendous healthful benefits whole grains have to offer the body.
Why Eat Whole Grains
Whole grains, including the gluten-containing grains [(wheat: varieties such as spelt, farro, kamut, and durum), oats, rye, barley, and triticale], have tremendous nutritional value.
Whole grains have a significant amount of dietary fiber; contain healthy fats; are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants, and contain important vitamins and minerals. The general population will reap significant benefits from incorporating more whole grains into their diet.
A diet rich in whole grains has also been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.
The Benefits of Consuming Whole Grains
Studies have shown that incorporating whole grains into your diet will add quality years to your life. Whole-grain foods contain a multitude of nutrients including dietary fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, and magnesium.
Grains and the Environment
As the world continues to become more and more aware of the warming of our planet: greenhouse gasses are causing temperatures to rise, tropical storms are occurring with more frequency and severity, rising sea levels are threatening coastal communities, droughts are occurring with more regularity and are lasting for extended periods of time.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains emit significantly fewer greenhouse gasses than other foods. And, if you look at it from a humanitarian perspective, the livestock population in America eat seven times as much grain as is consumed by the ENTIRE U.S. POPULATION. In short, we could feed a whole lot more people if we ate more grains!
Below are two charts from “Eat as If You Could Save the Planet and Win!” Sustainability Integration into Nutrition for Exercise and Sport
Grains Versus Carbs – Clarify The Confusion
Before we leap cutting all grains, let’s make sure we are all on the same page.
Many people believe that to lose weight they have to cut grains from their diet because of the carbs. However, there is a difference between refined grains and whole grains.
When whole-grains are stripped of their bran and germ, they are considered to be “refined.”
Now, when you think of a refined person, you may think of elegance and culture.
Refined grains are quite the opposite. They provide a significant amount of carbohydrates, without the nutrient density provided by whole grains.
Foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes, soft drinks, desserts – and whole grains – all contain sugar-based molecules called carbohydrates.
So, when the grain is refined you are provided with mostly carbohydrates and fats, without all of the good nutritious stuff. Also, commercial food manufacturers add insult to injury by adding in additional artificial flavorings and salt, which lead the consumer to binge-eat, which can set the stage for weight gain, chronic disease . . . and help pad the food industries’ pockets!
The moral of the story is to try to eat whole grains rather than processed grains. They will not only contain more valuable nutrients, but they will also keep you fuller longer and help reduce that roller coaster of hunger.
Whole Grains Versus Refined Grains on Satiety
A 2016 study on the effects on satiation (the feeling of being full): A study compared the intake of whole-grain versus refined-grain pasta and found that choosing whole-grain pasta resulted in an increased sensation of satiety and lower rates of subsequent hunger.
So, if weight loss is your goal, you can eat more to weigh less. I know, sounds counterintuitive – right?
The Effects of Whole Grain Consumption on the Body
What is the overall impact of grain consumption on your body? While Advocates maintain the healthful benefits, many continue to say that grains cause obesity, damage to the intestines, and inflammation. What does the research say?
Whole Grains and Obesity
Epidemiological studies have consistently shown that a diet containing significant servings of whole-grain foods is associated with lower body weight. However, the results of controlled trials have not always been consistent.
Let’s put the science aside and take a real-world look. If whole grains lead to obesity, you would expect vegetarians, vegans, and those who live in less industrialized countries to be overweight, right? This is not the case; in fact, it is often the opposite.
Whole grains are extremely low in calories and high in fiber. Regular consumption of these foods can keep you feeling full for hours.
When a person decides to stop eating grains they are likely to consume more fruits, meats, nuts, and other processed foods that are calorie-dense. While some of these other foods may still be rich in essential nutrients, they may contain more calories per gram than grains, therefore increasing the risk of weight gain.
Whole-Grains give you a rewarding return on investment.
What is Making Us Fat?
Whole grains prepared without any seasoning can admittedly be quite bland. What makes these grains pleasing to the palette are the added herbs and spices . . . and dare I say – sugary sauces. Independent of added flavorings, grains are extremely low in calories. Also, they contain fiber that will keep you feeling full for hours at a time.
Commercialized refined grains are a different story. Kernels of corn when refined results in corn syrup. Refined whole wheat grains become flowers that can be used for muffins, pastries, cookies, and muffins.
The devil is in the delivery.
When you remove the fiber that makes you feel full and add additional sugar, fats, and other ingredients to tempt your taste buds and leave you wanting more, the pounds begin to accumulate.
So, it’s not necessarily the grains that are making you fat, it’s in the processing.
Grains and Inflammation
What exactly is inflammation?
Inflammation is a chronic (ongoing) response of the immune system in which your body attacks its own tissue, causing cellular damage.
In the anti-grain community, you will often hear that grains contribute to low levels of inflammation. In fact, results of controlled trials have found otherwise. Grain consumption has either had no effect on inflammation or has resulted in a decrease.
Grains and the Intestines
Many members of the grain adversarial community will tell you that grain consumption can cause significant damage to the intestines. They will claim that grains contain compounds that negatively interact with mineral absorption. Studies have shown that consuming whole wheat flour, wheat bran, and/or oat bran had no significant effect on absorption or blood levels of calcium, zinc, or iron,.
Strategies for Maintaining a Grain-Free Diet
OK, this is what you came for. Whether you intend to continue making grains a part of your regular diet, are wanting to cut down on your consumption, or plan to cut out grains completely – you can take some proactive steps to make sure you are still maintaining a healthy balance. Foods You Can Eat Grain Free
Foods You Can Eat That Are Grain-Free
Below is a list of foods you can incorporate in a grain-free diet:
- Fruits. Eat your fruits till your heart’s content. Try incorporating every color of the rainbow whether fresh, frozen, or dried.
- Vegetables. Whether raw, cooked, steamed, or sauteed – veggies are your friend when eating grain-free. Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, winter squash, fresh corn, and potatoes are great alternatives and are rich in carbs.
They are also rich in fiber, potassium, and antioxidants, and other phytonutrients.
- Protein-rich plant foods. Legumes, beans, tofu, edamame, tempeh, soymilk, soy yogurt, and mock meats are generally grain-free and wonderful additions to a grain-free diet. As always check the label to make sure they don’t sneak some grains in there.
- Pseudocereals. This includes quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth, and are considered pseudocereals, or “fake” grains. Chia seeds are also a great way to get some of that missing fiber into your diet.
- Nuts and seeds. You can include all types of nuts and seeds into your grain-free diet, as well as flours, milks, and butters. Be careful though, the calories in nuts can add up. Aim for one fistful a day.
- Non-grain-based flours. Almond, chickpea, flaxseed, soy, red lentil, and coconut flour, as well as bread, noodles, and other baked goods made from them, are permitted in a grain-free diet.
- Fats. These include olive oil, nut butters, coconut, and avocado oil. Use judiciously, as oils are calorie-dense. In place of oil, consider using vegetable broth.
Cutting grains from your regular diet is easier than you think, and just requires some creativity.
Imagine your regular meal and think of creative ways to remove the grains. Take lunch for instance. Instead of smothering your sandwich between two pieces of bread, consider wrapping it in the green vegetable of your choice.
Below are some links to grain-free recipes I hope you enjoy!
Grain-Free Breakfast Ideas
Quick Grain-Free Hot Cereal – by Bakerita
Grain-Free Waffles with Strawberry Cream – by Ricki Heller
Grain-Free Lunch Ideas
Satay Style Spiralized Vegetables Stir Fry – by Cotter CRUNCH
Raw Vegan Collard Wrap – by Avocado Pesto
Grain-Free Dinner Ideas
Roasted Brocolli and Lemon Falafel Pitas – by She Likes Food
Cajun Quinoa Cakes + Lemon-Dill Sriracha Remoulade – By Simply Veganista
Grain-Free Dessert Ideas
Grain-Free Vegan Carrot Cake – By The Roasted Root
Grain-Free Berry Crisp – By The Minimalist Baker
Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSC